With Russia’s ongoing military attack on Ukraine, pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine Chinese netizens have started an online war of words.
Russia supporters are clearly in the majority at the moment. They believe that Russia has been driven into a corner by the US-led NATO and has no choice but to fiercely retaliate. They also feel that Russia’s military operation is justifiable even though Ukraine is ravaged by war.
As China has faced suppression by the US and other Western nations in recent years, the pro-Russia camp also wants China to support Russia, which is its strategic partner. At the very least, China must not allow Russia to fall or it will be left alone to face the threat of the US and its allies.
The two sides are at loggerheads, and their intense war of words has escalated into name-calling and personal attacks.
In contrast, there are fewer Chinese netizens proclaiming their support for Ukraine. These netizens believe that Russia’s military attack is an outright invasion that has brought great disaster to the Ukrainians. Thus, China should not support Russia but should instead uphold the United Nations (UN)'s principle of inviolability of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and join the Western countries in condemning the invasion.
The two sides are at loggerheads, and their intense war of words has escalated into name-calling and personal attacks. The pro-Russia camp has labelled the Ukraine supporters as “America’s fans” (美粉) and accused them of shouting empty anti-war slogans while turning a blind eye to the US’s military actions when it previously bombed Yugoslavia or invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. They claim that Ukraine supporters are hiding behind their true intentions since they are anti-war but not anti-US.
Meanwhile, the pro-Ukraine camp has condemned Russia supporters as “Russia’s fans” (俄粉) who blindly support Russia in its war against humanity, forgetting the historical lessons of how Russia had invaded a large part of China's territory.
The intense exchange over the Russia-Ukraine war again shows the divided nature of China’s online public opinion. However, the pro-Russia camp is considered closer to China’s official position and has the upper hand over the pro-Ukraine camp in this debate.
...while China does not agree that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is an “invasion”, it will not recognise Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory nor the independence of the two Russia-backed republics in eastern Ukraine.
China’s pro-Russia stance becoming clear
China’s official stance towards the Russia-Ukraine war has become clearer. Following the outbreak of the war, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson engaged in numerous heated debates with Western media at its press conferences, refusing to label Russia’s military operation as an “invasion” and emphasising the need to “recognise that the Ukraine issue has a complex and special historical context”. These remarks suggest that China is inclined towards supporting Russia.
However, China’s foreign ministry released a five-point statement on 25 February, highlighting that China does not wish to “choose sides” in the Russia-Ukraine war.
The first point emphasises that “China maintains that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and protected and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter abided by in real earnest. This position of China is consistent and clear-cut, and applies equally to the Ukraine issue.”
This means that while China does not agree that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is an “invasion”, it will not recognise Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory nor the independence of the two Russia-backed republics in eastern Ukraine.
The statement also reiterated the following: “Given NATO's five consecutive rounds of eastward expansion, Russia's legitimate security demands ought to be taken seriously and properly addressed”; “China welcomes the earliest possible direct dialogue and negotiation between Russia and Ukraine”; “Ukraine should function as a bridge between the East and the West, not a frontier in big power confrontation”; “China also supports the EU and Russia in entering into equal-footed dialogue on European security issues”; and “China has always disapproved of willfully invoking of UN Charter Chapter VII that authorises the use of force and sanctions in UNSC resolutions”.
To put it simply, China believes that the Russia-Ukraine war is the result of NATO’s eastward expansion. China supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and hopes that Russia and Ukraine will hold talks to end the war, and that the European Union (EU) and Russia will discuss a resolution to the crisis. China is also not participating in Western sanctions against Russia.
...if Russia fails to achieve its aims or even gets deeply embroiled in the war with Ukraine, Russia’s national strength would be greatly diminished, and there might even be a serious domestic crisis.
Is the Russia-Ukraine war a boon or bane for China?
While China holds a steady position of mediating and encouraging talks, it will not likely resolve the Ukraine crisis. Currently, the development and outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war is still unclear, and it is difficult to assess whether the crisis is a boon or bane for China.
If Russia can achieve its main strategic aims on the battlefield in Ukraine — to ensure that Ukraine remains neutral and does not join NATO as a bulwark against Russia — then Russia will be more active in confronting NATO. In turn, Russia can channel its strategic resources that are currently used in dealing with the US and EU to East Asia, which would be a clear advantage for China. Some Chinese netizens believe that these situations are the new strategic opportunities that the war can bring for China.
However, if Russia fails to achieve its aims or even gets deeply embroiled in the war with Ukraine, Russia’s national strength would be greatly diminished, and there might even be a serious domestic crisis.
China would not stand aside and watch as Russia’s leadership crumbles; it would have to put in more resources to support Russia while facing greater pressure from the US and other Western countries. There might even be a shift in domestic rhetoric as to whether this is an “invasion” or “self defence” by Russia, forcing the authorities to adjust its policy towards Russia.
Currently, the Ukraine crisis is benefiting China. In 2017, when Donald Trump entered the White House, China-US relations rapidly deteriorated, leading the US to directly state that China is its biggest strategic competitor. Even after the Biden administration took office, not only did China-US relations not improve, but the US and its allies joined forces in suppressing China, and the China-US face-off became the main theme of the international stage.
China will not easily abandon Russia as a trump card.
For China, Russia is its most important ally in resisting Western suppression. Renowned American political scientist John Mearsheimer had long proposed that the West bring Russia in to contain China. If that happened, it would be China’s greatest geopolitical nightmare.
Nevertheless, the Russia-Ukraine war has removed any possibility of the US joining forces with Russia to resist China. It will be difficult to repair relations between Russia and other Western countries over the short term, and Russia will be mainly reliant on China to contend with the West. Meanwhile, China will not easily abandon Russia as a trump card. The US will still consider China its main competitor, but it does not have the capabilities to move on two fronts simultaneously.
Overall, China is in a relatively detached position in the Russia-Ukraine war and is not responsible for resolving the crisis. But as Russia’s firm ally, China also cannot be a mere bystander. China is facing a new challenge of maintaining a balance amid the Russia-Ukraine war and Western sanctions on Russia without losing its strategic advantage.
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